Boudhanath Prayer Flags - On Halloween Night...

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Taj Mahal & Agra... The definition of extremes!

From Eliza’s journal – “A few days ago we visited the Taj Mahal in Agra. When I first saw the Taj from our hotel roof, I was so blown away! It was so big, so white, so beautiful, and so amazing…. And I wasn’t even seeing it up close yet! To visit it we rode a horse cart to the entrance gate. It was really sad, because the horse was super skinny, and we could tell that it was worked too hard.

There was a lot of security to go through to get in, and we entered through a huge walled in area like an old city wall. There were beautiful gardens, and then another beautiful archway, and suddenly we saw the magnificent Taj Mahal! My sisters and I said things like, “I can’t believe we’re seeing the real Taj!”, “Can we really go inside it?”, and “This all just seems like a dream!” Once we were done taking tons of pictures and admiring it, we walked up to go in. Every step we took we got closer, and the Taj looked bigger and better than before. Soon we were walking along side it, with its marble minarets towering above us. We had to take our shoes off to go in, and the stone was really hot on our feet. Once we got inside it was much cooler, and there is a huge domed ceiling which makes a great echo!

At the center is a grave which is the reason the Taj is here. A long time ago (400 years?) Shah Jahan was an emperor ruling over India. His favorite wife, Mumtaz, died while having her 14th child. He was devastated, so he built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for her. The only thing in the Taj that is not symmetrical is his grave. He was imprisoned by his own son in the nearby fort, and his sister, or daughter, had him buried by his favorite wife in the Taj after he died."

Karen’s Take on the Taj

Our destination for this train journey was Agra and the Taj Mahal of course. After two nights on the train, comfortable though it was, we were thrilled to disembark and join the stream of tourists here at this world wonder. I thought I was ready for the sight, but my knees became weak and I probably made some audible reaction too as the world’s most romantic tomb materialized before us. The whiteness… The cleanliness… The gardens… The reflection in the pool in front… The story of the heartbroken Emperor Jahan after his favorite wife died bearing his 14th child.

It all became so real as the white stone of the monument came into view and the detail of the flower designs revealed colorful inlaid semiprecious stones and the minarets that we read about were indeed leaning outward so as to leave the main building unharmed should they collapse…and the tombs! Oh the connection was palpable. So long dead, but the energy of the love the Shah had for this woman, Mumtaz Mahal, could be felt as the perfection of the temple of love sank in to my bones in the approach to the tomb. We shared our knowledge of the story from the 1600’s with the kids as we walked and the story unfolded to them too. Mumtaz, the beloved wife of Shah Jahan, died in 1629 during childbirth. Her husband being deeply distressed commissioned the building of the greatest tomb ever built. He had it positioned so that he could sit and look across at her each day of his life. In the end of his own life, as an afterthought, his body was entombed beside her and the sight of her perfectly centered sarcophagus with his off centered one was moving beyond words.

So there I was; the historic lump in my throat, eyes glistening up toward a tipsy minaret…when my spirit was completely redirected by the excitement of the flight of an Egyptian Vulture circling the minaret and the dome! Snap! Snap! More fervently than for any marbled icon my camera hungrily gobbled up the sight to be sure of the species. Not even registering the irony of the sort of bird it was…I was consumed with my usual excitement of watching a new bird! The beauty of the shrine enhanced by the graceful spiraling dance of the massive bird I truly now was in love with the place where nature and culture and love, life and the finality of death met for me today.

After savoring the Taj for a few hours, from many different angles, we began our departure... But as we approached the official "photo taking" area, we were surrounded by photographers and families, all wanting to take our pictures. To amuse our admirers, we did a few obligatory dorky photos of "pinching the top of the Taj." Then a small parade of families lined up and snap, snap, snap, we are now a part of countless albums. "Hello sir, hello good sir please one photos family with wife?" We had to push pretty hard to finally make our escape!

And what about those "extremes?" Well, as many of you know, the Taj is THE sight to see in India... It's exquisitely beautiful, with lawns and gardens manicured to perfection. The tickets are quite expensive, by Indian standards, and the grounds are gorgeous, quiet, organized, and squeaky clean. It's among the most awe-inspiring man-made sights in the world.

And then you step outside, leaving the happy Indian families & smiling tour groups with their matching caps behind. Past the multiple security check posts and metal detectors. Past the thick stone walls to the dusty alleys that surround the Taj compound on 3 sides. Then you enter the exact opposite of the exquisite polished Taj Mahal experience... a chaotic, filthy, festering city. We've traveled in some pretty rough areas, and quite a bit in India, but certain parts of Agra are among the most squalid and medieval we've seen... Flowing open sewers, dead dogs in the street, crumbling rotting infrastructure, the most intense grid-locked traffic bottlenecks imaginable. (Don't get me wrong, we LOVE India, and hope to return again and again...) It took almost 2 sweaty hours to travel the several kms. to the "Baby Taj," through a warren of tiny alleyways that converge on a bridge across the Yamuna... Inhaling black belching diesel and two-stroke exhaust, clouds of dust and unmentionable airborne filth settling on your skin, past mountains of rotting garbage that squeeze some two lane roads into a barely passable trail. Egads, this was seething overwhelming India at its finest! (You know Agra was bad when, 2 days later, on our first drive through congested polluted Kathmandu, Eliza says, "Wow, it's so clean and 'non-stinky' here!") And then, we pulled into Agra's "Baby Taj," and POOF! Calm... quiet... pristine... An astounding oasis of peace and contemplative bliss just one wall away from the carnage. Clean gorgeous lawns that the kids were invited to frolic on, without fearing a single turd! Extreme beauty & peace crammed right up against extreme poverty & despair. That's one of the most mind-blowing aspects of travel in India.


  1. it is so interesting to hear all of your views on seeing agra and the taj - sean and i went there and felt similarly about both the horrid city and the spectacular monuments. and we were also completely blown away by our rickshaw drive across that crazy bridge! but our experience in india in particular and asia in general is so much more limited than yours - i'm glad to hear that our future trips to india might not include quite that level of foulness!!

  2. Foulness can certainly be avoided, but at a cost... Many choose to spend more $$ and insulate themselves from the reality of India by staying on the plush hotel grounds, and sealed up in the AirCon bus. I think we choose to accept an occasional grim experience, because we want to walk the real streets and be open to the MANY delightful encounters that happen each day in the "real" India.... All that idealism aside, I was a bit surprised at how grim Agra was!